Study addresses issues of saving bayfront communities

September 18, 2012

All politicians worry about the shifting sands of politics. Amy J. Reed Parker, mayor of Slaughter Beach, may not consider herself a politician - her service to her town is more a labor of love - but she worries about the literal shifting of sands beneath her feet.

Of even more concern is the surging of Delaware Bay salt water both in front and in back of her community.

“The damage that’s being done, especially to the farmland. All those dead trees,” Parker said. “I just came through there the other day. I have to take a blood pressure pill before I ride through there - it’s just so aggravating.”

Parker, a former Cape Henlopen basketball star, once dreamed of getting out of Delaware. Later, she put down roots and made it her home - a home now threatened by storms and rising tides.

Parker was among the residents and state and local officials who traveled to Legislative Hall Sept. 14 to hear a briefing from the Delaware Bay Beach Work Group, a Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control-formed committee to study beach erosion and drainage in seven Delaware Bay communities.

In Sussex, that included Prime Hook and Broadkill, in addition to Slaughter Beach. In Kent, the study focused on Pickering Beach, Kitts Hummock, Bowers and South Bowers.

Jammed into the Senate Hearing Room, the 50 or so attendees appeared ready for a hot meeting, especially when James Eisenhardt, senior consultant at Cardno Entrix, based in New Castle, began by removing his jacket.

Pretty soon you’ll be removing your tie, someone joked.

But it didn’t turn out that way. The meeting was mostly informational. And there was so much information to digest that few of the legislators present were ready to comment.

And I don’t blame them. The purpose of this column isn’t to suggest what should be done, but to provide a glimpse of the effort being made to address the extraordinary challenges the state faces.

(Delaware, by the end of this century, could lose between eight and 11 percent of its land mass. Suddenly, the old joke about Delaware - that it has three counties but only two at high tide - isn’t quite as funny.)

Eisenhardt began by cataloguing the data collected. The study considered, individually, 1,763 buildings, mostly residential - the locations, history of flooding, elevations, foundations, number of stories.

He then outlined the costs and benefits of various scenarios.

They are: 1) beach nourishment, 2) enhanced retreat, 3) strategic retreat and 4) no action.

The first option means bringing in sand to replace the beach and dunes. The second and third options involve the state buying up properties, removing the houses and “retreating” from the coast. The fourth was presented as a basis for comparing.

The total cost, across 30 years, for all seven communities varied from $61.65 million for beach nourishment to $154.58 million for the enhanced retreat scenario. (The no-action plan, of course, had minimal costs.)

And here’s where you start to appreciate the scale of the problem.

The beach nourishment plan, for example, would help maintain the beach and protect bayfront houses, but it would do little to control the flooding and drainage problems. Salt water would still flow through breaches into the back bays and marshes.

A talk with Rep. Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, who attended Friday’s presentation, illustrated the issues. Briggs King used to represent Lewes, whose coastline she described as in great shape. (It was not part of Friday’s briefing.) Following redistricting, she no longer does. In fact, none of the seven communities discussed Friday lie in her district.

So is the issue of sea-level rise now less of a concern for her and her constituents? Not by a long shot. King now represents Long Neck, which has its own flooding and drainage issues, despite not being on Delaware Bay.

Friday’s discussion didn’t even address the back bay regions. “That’s the crux,” Briggs King said.

“That’s where there’s a huge issue, and you can bet that for our next meeting we’ll be discussing the drainage.”

More people are affected inland, she said, than on the Delaware Bay coast. Not that she was unhappy about the briefing.

“One thing that impresses me about the study is that they have it broken down into specific areas, because one size is not going to fit all. And so now we go back to the residents, who are the stakeholders in this, and see which is the more palatable plan.”

She said it won’t simply be a question of economics.

“For the residents year round, putting up with the flooding and the roads being impassable at times, mail that can’t be delivered - that’s a major concern, rather than just the 10-year and 100-year erosion. It’s daily life that’s being impacted,” Briggs King said.

Parker echoed Briggs King’s thoughts. While frustrated with the lack of action so far, she said she’s keeping a positive attitude.

“I have a lot of questions, but I have faith in what they’re going to do."

For more information, look up the Delaware Bay Beach Workgroup online.

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